While the debate will always continue over Maradona and Pele being the greatest footballer to have ever stepped foot on this planet, the Messi-factor seems to be overriding a lacklustre yet cohesive Argentina once again.

Voices Tuesday, April 07, 2015 - 05:30
By Sumon K Chakrabarti ‘La Pulga’ (The Little Flea) is flying. The Little Flea is mesmerizing. And The Little Flea is playing the role of the talisman to the hilt – 4 goals in 2 World Cup matches, 10 in last 8 matches and since being handed over the captain’s armband -23 in 20 matches. Lo and Behold, La Albiceleste can dream again. Because Lionel Messi is in the mood and he wants to emulate his hero Diego Maradona. That too, in neighbouring Brazil, bitter rivals and spiritual home of the beautiful game. And the fans of Quilmes (Argentina’s national beer) are teasing their Brahma (Brazil’s national beer) rivals with a Spanish parody which talks about post-1986 (when a Maradona-inspired Argentina lifted the trophy in Mexico), where even an out-of-form El Diego (God to me!) carried a lackluster team to the finals, defeating Brazil on-route. “Brazil, tell me how it feels to have daddy in your home.I swear that even as the years go by we’ll never forget How Diego dribbled and Cani (striker Claudio Canniggia whose goal sunk Brazil) ] stuck the needle in.You’ve been crying since Italy until today. You’ll see Messi bring the cup back to us. Maradona is greater than Pelé.” While the debate will always continue over Maradona and Pele being the greatest footballer to have ever stepped foot on this planet, the Messi-factor seems to be overriding a lacklustre yet cohesive Argentina once again. Because Messi is looking to redeem himself. Because the extrovert traditionalist never achieved for his country anything close to what he does for Barcelona regularly. But his form has been scintillating since Alejandro Sabella’s took his first decision when appointed national team coach in August 2011. He took Messi’s mentor and former Barca coach Pep Guardiaola’s advice : “‘Protect him with players who make his job simpler. And make him feel loved”. Sabella heeded and said something which turned out to be great words of footballing wisdom: “What is good for him, is good for the team… He once missed a penalty and it was as if an asteroid had struck the Earth. Please!... ‘Then they started, “What if he’s depressed...what’s happening to Messi?” It turns out that he scored five goals in the following two matches. We have to understand that Messi is a human being.”  And Sabella handed him the captaincy band. The rest is history. Argentina waltzed through the qualifying competition for Brazil, Messi equalled Gabriel Batistuta’s record of scoring 12 goals in a calendar year for La Albiceleste in 2012, and surpassed his idol Maradona’s goal record for Argentina. The tens of thousands of Argentinian fans colonizing the beaches of Brazil at the moment are also dreaming with Messi’s dream-run – they are already fluttering a banner that depicts Maradona, the Pope and Messi; all three are considered national icons but only one is referred to on the banner as ‘God’ and it’s not the man from St Peter’s, nor the man from Barcelona. But there is a pregnant hope – a hope that the Little Flea can not just emulate “God” but go beyond in football’s Basilica in the next two weeks. But if Messi’s dazzling ball skills is lighting hopes in Buenos Aires, a 22-year-old from the same continent is setting the field on fire with his audacious skill set. James (pronounced ‘HAHM-ess’) Rodrigues is his name; he is the first player to score in his opening four games of a World Cup since 2002; Messi, Neymar and Germany’s Thomas Mueller trail to a 100-1 outsider in the number of goals scored in the second game of the round-of-16 and looking set to make million Brazilian hearts cry as his free-flowing Columbian team takes on the Seleção Brasileira de Futebol in the quarters. When Monaco paid £37million to Porto for Rodriguez a year ago, there was a lot of head-scratching. Guess after his double against Uruguay, we know what all the fuss was all about. Lo and behold! Columbia is not missing Radamel Falcao, out with injury, in this World Cup anymore. And Rodriguez could be the focal point of a bidding war this summer between Europe’s biggest clubs. If Columbia sinks Brazil, the buzz around the number 10 could become mass hysteria. (Watch: James Rodrigues in action for Monaco)

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